The muskie is a king of fishes, built and engineered by God, similar to and as vicious as a barracuda—long, fast, muscular, huge, mean, and carnivorous. The fish and game department of the state of Wisconsin bred and re-bred and hybridized a selection of them as fighter muskies. This is a distinctive subspecies of muskie called “tiger muskie,” having beautiful vertical bars of green and black on the sides. Legal minimum length is 30”. If you catch a muskie, you are held in the same esteem as having run a 9.6 100 meter race, having hit four homers in one game, making a hole-in-one. Catching the almost mystical muskellunge was what we aspired to as we listened to the inspirational fishing stories of my father Rudy; his fishing partner and no-nonsense, almost scary enthusiast, Howard Lossman; and our uncle Ray Donnersberger, a fly fisherman who provided a new definition of fly fisherman. Rather than wearing the flies on his hat or emblazoned on his necktie, he was not ostentatious about his abilities in any way. It wasn’t until years later that I overheard in a conversation that he held the world record for tarpon on 8-lb test line. Just now, Magrath told me that Uncle Ray was famous. I tried his name on Google search and found that Ray pioneered shad fishing in swampy rivers of Florida, developing the methodology to find and land 200-lb “silvers,” though he made his record in Cuba. He was our personal teacher of fly fishing, using the “classroom” of small swampy lakes in the forest preserves around Highland Park, Illinois, starting in our earliest years.
We then read in the Milwaukee Journal that President Ike Eisenhower was visiting northern Wisconsin on a fishing vacation. Soon we received a postal card with a wide-angle photo of the United States of America, showing every one of the six Eisenhower brothers having achieved the unbelievable. Each had had the good fortune of catching a muskie, and they were all lined up for a wide-angle photo—Ike, the brothers, and the muskies–each human holding up his personal muskie for promo purposes, of course. The postcard said “Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, Home of the Heavyweight Fighters.”
Boulder Junction is a very small town in northern Wisconsin, not far from the Michigan border. Immediately my brother Bill began researching the subject. He located the site for this orgy of big game fresh-water fishing to be at Round Lake, using the Forest Service and the geodesic survey map at 1:250,000. Round Lake, we noted, did not have a very good outlet and virtually no inlet, so if the Fish & Game planted the lake, fish could not escape easily. Many large tiger muskies had been planted for the Eisenhowers in order to ensure they could catch at least one each. As good young adventurers, we immediately made plans to catch one of these fighters. You can’t imagine how excited we were, making airtight plans. We were to locate a trail to the lake and to camp out inland from the shore of this almost virginal lake set in the second-growth white pine forest, and I was quite happy with the security of having my brother Bill with me, a natural scientist and a brilliant and intense person who at age 17 could solve all problems. Bill knew all the answers.
Our brand new Ford station wagon was of green color and was paneled with wood. We saddled up this beauty with our 14’ all-wood strap-lathed Pen-Yan fishing boat for a 250-mile portage. We had become familiar with the car-top process at Waupaca Chain-o-Lakes, having hauled our nice boat there to learn to water ski very early that summer. For two weeks we possessed the family’s “twelve-horse,” a Martin outboard motor which we had learned to pull-start with choke on full, to adjust all knobs, and to handle the idiosyncracies of that great friendly outboard motor.
I had just learned to drive an auto, having helped pilot my mother and her friends up Highway 51 to northern Wisconsin in order to investigate the apparitions of the B.V.M. (Blessed Virgin Mary) which had happened to Mrs. Vanderneuleen, a woman whom we found living in white trash conditions near Altoona. After they investigated I was told that the apparitions were improbable. My mother and her church ladies were disappointed. This was added to their preoccupation with my high-speed driving skills because there had been a recent accident involving their friend Mrs. Riordan, who while driving her new Buick Roadmaster up this same road to the lake country found the accelerator pedal stuck in full open position, and they all crashed at high speed. (Sounds almost like Lake Woebegon.)
We knew in our determined hearts that we were capable of adventure, of overcoming the inevitable problems. We were outfitted for the task. Supporting gear was obtained at a “war surplus store”: Air Force one-man insect-proof arctic survival tents in dark olive drab in reversible white nylon, complete with mosquito netting. We also obtained the army shovels for ditching around the tents and for constructing sanitary latrines (we both had Boy Scout merit badges in latrine building and care). We had hatchets, knives, casting rods and reels, 15-lb test nylon monofilament line, large and small snelled hooks, minnow bucket, large gaffing hook, two-foot diameter landing net, long-nosed fish pliers, fry pan with bread crumbs and bacon for cooking oil, compass, survival book, paddles, roll-up government-issue Air Force arctic sleeping bags, bobbers, sinkers, and lures. The best lure was the green and black Pikie-minnow with three sets of treble hooks. There were first-aid splints, slings, bandages, mercurochrome, and SOS, a cleanser for the dishes. We had toilet paper.
North past Boulder Junction the terrain is flat and composed of pure second-growth white pine, my favorite tree at the time: fast growing, light green, soft needled—the pine that Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox harvested, the pine that made Wisconsin famous as a lumbering state. It was the pine used for toilet paper and building construction. (In 1957 and 1958 Judy and Ray and I grew several thousand white pines which later helped the cause of our 50-acre “river trails” subdivision.) In an expression of the time, we were loaded for bear—but without firearms of any sort.
Thirty miles north of Boulder Junction we peeled off onto the old logging road to Round Lake, which was more of a 4-wheel-drive trail. The woods were moist, even a bit swampy. As it was early July, puddles and vernal pools were here and there along the trail. The “puddle” of note was formidable, almost 30 feet long and wide enough to cover both tire tracks. It had been filled with 10-foot logs to provide a firmer base for those who dared. We took a flying start to ford across this challenge to our arrival only to slide between some of the logs and become temporarily stuck. We jacked the car out and tried a few more times to ford through this water, but we ended up with a broken exhaust pipe between the motor and the muffler.
What remarkably loud sounds the motor made in the quiet forest!
So we set up camp, dug for worms, went out pan fishing, and returned to camp with plenty of sunfish and crappie. How delicious they are cooked absolutely fresh in bacon grease on a campfire. Happiness soon set in.
The next morning back in Boulder Junction we fixed the exhaust piping and then casually picked the brain of the oldest bait seller and guide we could find. We asked him about fishing things in general, the weather, the politics (of course), and he shared knowledge from his whole career after Bill (and I) purchased the live bait he recommended for our project. Ten-inch suckers, a dark-colored giant minnow, to be kept fresh in frequently changed water in our minnow bucket. He shared his sure-fire technique for muskie–he had over 55 years of fishing experience.
He said that at 6:00 to 9:00 on a calm evening, you go out on a calm lake and await the setting sun. Use a red bobber. Use 10-12 feet of leader and sinker and hook a sucker through the belly into the dorsum. Turn your motor off, of course. Then drift from windward to leeward. Calm water is best. Drift just outside the weeds in 10-15 feet of water. When the bobber begins to move off, which indicates foreplay on the part of the predator, wait 50 minutes by the clock. The bobber will then go down for good because invariably the muskie will “run,” having swallowed the bait into his stomach. Yank back on the rod viciously to set the hook, and the fun begins. Hold the rod tip up. The line will cut through the water as the fish runs. You will see the drops of water falling off the taut line. The muskie will run off your line, dive for the logs, go for the respite of weeds, but you must lead the fish, controlling the head. Turn the fish using the springiness of the rod. A muskie may jump. Keep the line taut by any method. Follow the fish by moving the boat after the fish. You may need to turn the motor on for speed.
The next day, sunny and warm, was nice for fishing. We went around the lake, staying offshore about 60 feet, casting out bobtail lures with the motor on slow and quiet. We stood up in the boat, careful not to hook each other during the back swing. When casting we were trained to yell “eyeballs,” and careful not to lose balance and end up in the water ourselves. The bobtail looks like a little hula skirt made of red strands, concealing one of those treble hook “gangs.” We cast up toward each shore, reeled in, kept the lure about 6” below the water’s surface, rod tip at right angles to the line, and moving the rod to allow the lure to swim faster, then slower, mimicking a wounded fish or mouse. We cast perhaps a thousand times. [space here at end of tape ]
Suddenly we spotted a huge open mouth with a million sharp teeth following the lure, and the mouth was attached to a 4-foot tiger muskie. Surprised, Bill reared back and fell over the opposite side of the boat into the drink, taking his fishing gear with him.
The proper method would have been to move the rod tip in a figure-eight pattern, hoping the killer would feel the meal was escaping and would snap his jaws shut on the gang of hooks. We surmised that this green and black torpedo-like missile was one of the world’s largest fishes, and we resolved to try harder. We stripped down, took a swim in the middle of the lake, went ashore for a liver sausage sandwich, and then cast for a few more hours using a different lure. We waited for the feeding hour.
I rode out twenty feet past the weeds. Bill put the big hook inside the sucker/bait and set the bobber. We trolled slowly just outside the weeds. We were halfway around Round Lake when the bobber went down. We had a hit! It went off slowly in the 11:00 direction. We marked the time at 6:25 and waited. I pushed the boat a bit to follow, seeing that big fish in my imaginary vision playing with the sucker like a cat plays with a mouse. We visualized a big fish mauling a little fish. In 53 minutes the bobber went under water. The line on Bill’s rod tightened and came up out of the water in a straight line, not at an obtuse angle. You could see drops of water rolling down the line to the lake surface. My heartbeat picked up in rate and intensity. The bobber came up again and immediately went under. I could hear the line going out. The “click” was on and made a zzzz sound, increasing in speed. We took immediate counsel with each other. This mini summit meeting resolved that it was time to set the hook viciously. Bill did just that, rearing back against a very taut line. I saw the rod tip jerk up and down repeatedly. He took off the click as the line ran out. You could see where the line entered the water, and that spot quickly moved off to the right. Droplets spewed off the reel. Bill thumbed the line on the reel to slow it without allowing the line to break.
The fight was on. I chased the fish around with oars and motor, keeping us out of weeds, away from submerged trees, away from the rocky point. In 45 minutes the fish tired and Bill reeled her in little by little, pulling the rod tip way up and reeling in on the way down. Finally a dark, below-the-water shadow appeared behind the boat, to the right. White flashed once or twice as the fish rolled and showed its belly.
“Lead her up here, keep the line taut, I’ll gaff it,” I said, holding the long wooden handle with the huge 4×6” hook.
“No. Net her. Keep the net in the water and I’ll guide her in.” Putting the net below the water line, I braced for the fish. Bill steered the monster along the side of the oarlocks. Seeing the landing net, our muskie broke water for the first and only time, in a huge high graceful jump parallel to the boat. The fish went by in the air and looked sideways at us. The hook was not in the fish’s mouth. She held the sucker sideways in her teeth. She wasn’t even hooked. Then she spit out the sucker, disdainfully dropping it complete with hook and line. I swear she spit it toward me. Finally she swam slowly away and out of sight for fun and games and diversion somewhere else.
Exhilaration and denouement. Fishing is like a trampoline or like a bank loan. It lifts you high, and then you come down and have to pay it back. There’s an inevitable temporary low, but the experience stays with you forever, to be utilized as background for future interactions in life. A little bit wiser with more perspective and with a lasting warm sense of adventure. It is absolutely wonderful.
The debriefing came years later. We had gained knowledge in many areas, enjoyed brotherly comradery, had not killed a fish: the Muskie, Muskellunge Esox masquimong, is poor eating and has many little rib bones. Positive reinforcement was overflowing. We had learned about the white pine tree, Pinus strobes, all about fishing for Muskellunge Esox masquimong, Muskie, Crappie, Pomoxis annularis, Bluegill, related to Crappie, Sucker, Phoxinus phoxinus, camping, lakes, the fish and game department, maps, lures and ten other useful areas, which we added to our fund of knowledge.